"Paris, je t'aime", the latest cinematic bon bon from France is just that. A sweet little confection, a real love letter to Paris and everything you can love about the City of Lights. The film tells 18 short stories about love in the capital of France, each set in a different arrondissement. Each of these stories is directed by a different director, with a different cast. Because of this, some of the stories work and some don't.
The film smartly combines a variety of stories told by different directors. It works to the film's advantage that the directors represent a variety of countries, each providing a vignette of their idea of love in Paris. It would probably be too cloying and too overwhelming if all of the films were created by French directors. Instead, we are presented with a variety of looks at love, some traditional ideas, between a man and woman, others less traditional. Because each tells a story of a different kind of love, we are guided through all of the different facets of a relationship. Some tell of love at the very beginning, before either person is even aware of the thought, some tell of love between two older people who are divorcing. Yes, they are divorcing, but they have spent many years together and still have a certain amount of affection. One story tells the story of an American actresses' newfound love for the drug dealer who provides her with her fix. Another tells of the love of an American tourist who falls into the hands of a vampire. As you can see, these stories are all over the map thematically, and this creates a highly uneven landscape of stories, but it also creates a film that is, at all times, at the very least interesting.
There are a number of stories that work. My favorites are:
"Tuileries", the best segment, is written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. A huge fan of their work, they have had a number of missteps recently. This short work will hopefully mark a return to form; the Coen Brothers return to the oddball humor that has served them so well throughout their careers in this depiction of an American tourist who runs into trouble in the Paris Metro. Steve Buscemi plays the tourist and we know this because he is saddled with a huge bag from the Louvre filled with postcards and a mouse pad depicting the Mona Lisa. As he waits for the subway car to arrive, he glances through his guidebook which contains oddball pieces of information like "Don't look the French in the eye". Of course, as soon as he flips to one of these pages and reads this, he looks across the train tracks and spots a young French couple making out. Both of whom look him directly in the eye. The girl uses the American tourist to make her boyfriend jealous. There are many visual touches throughout signaling the return of the Coen Brothers more wacky sensibilities.
Tom Tykwer's "Faubourg Saint-Denis" tells the story of a young couple's (Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon) relationship over the course of the last few months. A blind young man (Beslon) overhears what he thinks is a young woman (Portman) about to commit suicide. It turns out she is merely practicing lines for her audition at a prestigious acting school in Paris. When she realizes she is late, he offers to guide her there and they are off running (Tykwer directed "Run Lola Run" and this seems to be his homage to his breakout film). Then, through a series of flashbacks, we see the high and low points of their relationship. Tykwer also uses a considerable amount of stop motion photography allowing us to span the space of a few months in the course of this vignette. It is an effective story and presents a complicated, but interesting relationship in a very short period of time.
Walter Salles' and Daniela Thomas' "Loin Du 16eme" tells the story of a young immigrant mother (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who travels far from her baby everyday to earn a living. The segment is effective because it quickly and accurately portrays a woman's struggles to live and provide for her baby, the love of her life.
Alexander Payne's "14th arrondissement" begins with a voiceover by Margo Martindale (a very recognizable character actress). In her halting, poorly pronounced French, she begins to tell the story of her trip to Paris to her French class in Boulder, Colorado, after her return home. As she narrates, we see various 'highlights' of the trip with the sort of oddball sensibility only the director of "Election" and "About Schmidt" could bring us. We hear how she was jet-lagged for five days, but was determined to get out, as she totters around wearing a fanny pack. We hear about all of the things she wanted to do, but couldn't afford. We hear about all of the adventures she has alone, so very alone. It is a hilarious segment depicting the portrait of a woman's love affair with a city. Or is she so determined to enjoy herself that she forces herself to fall in love?
It is interesting that the most successful segments play with our conceptions of what life in Paris is like.
There are a number of segments that are interesting, but are too quick or don't provide a memorable enough story. Gus Van Sant's "Le Marais" shows a nervous young French artist (Gaspard Ulliel, "A Very Long Engagement", "Hannibal Rising") nervously trying to pick up a handsome young man (Elias McConnell) whom he spots in a lithographer's shop. He speaks and speaks, while the young man sits silently. It is funny and interesting, but there is no closure and we could easily spend more time with these two. Bruno Podalydes "Montmarte" has a few funny observations, the story of a man (Podalydes) who helps a young woman (Florence Muller) who collapses on the street, doesn't go far enough with it's story about love at the first conception. Nobuhiro Suwa's "Place des Victoires" featuring Juliette Binoche as a grieving mother and Willem Dafoe as the Cowboy her son always wanted to see is interesting, but seems incomplete. Olivier Assayas' "Quartier des Enfants Rouges" features Maggie Gyllenhaal as an American actress in Paris to make a costume period piece. But it also seems to be lacking at least one more scene.
There are also a number of segments that just leave you shaking your head in wonder, asking why did the director think this would work? Wes Caven's "Pere-Lachaise" features Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as a young English couple in Paris for an early honeymoon. They decide to visit the grave of Oscar Wilde, get in a fight, and the woman realizes she can never marry a man who doesn't make her laugh. The ghost of Oscar Wilde (director Alexander Payne) gives the soon-to-be groom advice and they patch things up. This is easily the most talky and artificial of all of the segments and it seems as thought it was adapted from a one-act play. A bad one-act play.
Vincenzo Natali's "Quartier de la Madeline" features the American tourist (Elijah Wood) who has a run in with a vampire (Olga Kurylenko). She has pity on him, but when he needs some help, she is there to provide it. This segment is all about style and contains no wit, humor, emotion or drama.
Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy" features director Barbet Schroeder as a cosmetic salesman who meets an intoxicating beauty shop owner played by Li Xin. When the segment breaks out into a dance number, you realize this segment must have been conceived in a dream. A dream after eating too much rich food.
Gerard Depardieu's "Quartier Latin" features Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara as a couple who are now getting a divorce. They meet on the evening before signing the papers to make statements meant to slyly reveal things about their relationship and their continuing admiration for one another. Basically, the two sit at a table for the entire segment and say things at each other, pause, waiting for the drum beat before moving on. It is difficult to watch these two great actors flounder around.
"Paris, je t'aime" isn't for everyone and everyone who sees it will only like specific parts of the film (did I mention there is a segment about two mimes who fall in love?), but it is a fun romp through the City of Lights.